Winnebago County, IA
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As the changes of less than half a century are contemplated, one can scarcely realize or comprehend that the wonderful results of times marvel-working hand are the achievements of a period so brief as to be within the remembrance—almost —of the present generation.

Let us turn for a moment from the busy scenes as they are at present and fix our attention on things as they were but a quarter of a century ago, when the territory now comprising Winnebago county was still a stranger to the foot of the white man, when the hum of industry's wheels did not disturb the wild deer from its haunt nor the bird from its woodland home.  As the scene is pictured before us, we view a landscape of great beauty, the gently undulating prairie stretching its green waves as far as the eye can reach.  Here and there small groves of trees stand clearly defined against the horizon, and again, a miniature lake of pure sparkling water, its surface covered with silvery ripples, arrests our attention.  This land of beauty, which nature had endowed with such a lavish hand, has never been disturbed save by the tread of the red man, the hoot of the night-owl, or the bark of the prairie wolf as it roams about in search of prey.  These vast and rolling prairies were as green then as now; the prairie flowers bloomed as thickly and diffused their fragrance as bountifully.  But there was scarcely a trace of civilization. It was the home of the wild Indian and everything was as nature formed it with its varigated hues of vegetation; in winter a dreary snow-mantled desert, in summer a perfect paradise of flowers.  What a contrast!  Now nearly all traces of the primitive are obliterated; in place of the tall prairie grass and tangled under-brush, one beholds the rich waving-fields of golden grain.  In place of the dusky warriors' rude cabins, are the substantial and often elegant dwellings of the thrifty farmers; and the "iron horse," swifter than the nimble deer, treads the pathway so recently the trail of the red man. This soil, then annually devastated by the red sickle of fire, which cut away the wild herbage and drove to its death the stag, is now the home of the cereals and nourishes on its broad bosom thousands of tons of the staple products of the great Hawkeye State.  Then the storm drove the were-wolf to his hiding place, now the blast drives the herds of the husbandman to comfortable shelter.  These woodlands that once gave echo to the shrill war whoop, now ring with songs of peace, and these valleys that were then the breeding places of Indian atrocities, are now filled with happy homes.  The transformation is complete.


The Legislature of the State of Iowa, during the session of 1850-51, established and defined the boundaries of what is now Winnebago county.  The county was named after the tribe of Winnebago Indians, who at one time occupied the neutral ground in northern Iowa.  Prior to 1851 Winnebago was a part of Fayette county, and at the session of the Legislature, above referred to, it was attached to Polk county.  Jan. 22, 1853, it was attached to the county of Boone, and remained a part of that county until July1, 1855, when it was attached to Webster.  Thus Winnebago was under the judicial control of Webster county until the fall of 1857, when an order was issued for an election to organize the county and elect county officers.  The election was held in the fall of that year and the following were the officers elected:  County judge, Robert Clark; treasurer and recorder, C. H. Day; clerk of courts, B. F. Denslow; sheriff, J. S. Blowers; superintendent of schools and surveyor, C. W. Scott; and drainage commissioner, Darius Bray.  The county was located in October, 1858, by the following commissioners appointed by the Legislature:  T. E. Brown, of Polk county; Dr. William Church, of Webster county; and Dr. William Farmer, of Boone county.  The commissioners, after careful examination of the different localities proposed, finally decided that the seat of justice for Winnebago county should be located on the east half of the northeast quarter of section 35, township 98, range 24, where in March, 1856, Robert Clark had laid out the town of Forest City.


Winnebago county is the middle one of the northern tier of counties in the State, and is bounded on the north by Minnesota, on the east by Worth county, on the south by Hancock, and on the west by Kossuth county.  It comprises the territory of townships 98 to 100 north, in elusive, of ranges 23 to 26 west, inclusive, and contains a superficial area of about 400 square miles, equal to 256,000 acres.  The largest and most important stream of water flowing through the county is Lime creek, a tributary of the Shell Rock river.  It rises in Minnesota, enters the north part of the county about four miles from the east line, and flows in a south-westerly direction through the entire length of the county.  It is from sixty to 100 feet in width, of good depth, and in places affords good water power.  There are several smaller streams in the county, but they are of no consequence in furnishing water power, being advantageous only as they serve to drain the country through which they flow.  Several small but very pretty lakes are found in the county, and two of these, located near together, are called Twin lakes.  Rice lake embraces an area of about one square mile.  The water in these little lakes is always clear and pure, being fed by innumerable springs along their shores.  Game during certain seasons of the year is found in great plenty about these lakes, and the hunter finds rare sport with his gun.

The greater portion of the county is undulating or rolling prairie, although the southeast part is somewhat broken.  The west half is rolling prairie, with very little timber, but excellent soil.  The soil consists mostly of a dark loam, with a mixture of sand, rendering it very productive, and suited to a rapid and vigorous growth of vegetation.  It is from two to four feet deep, with a subsoil, below which gravel appears in some places, and in others yellow clay or hardpan.  The soil throughout the entire county is, without exception, exceedingly fertile, and adapted to the successful cultivation of all grains, grasses and fruits indigenous or acclimated to our northern latitude.  The county contains considerable timber land, mostly in the eastern part, bordering on Lime creek.  Near the center of the county there is a fine body of timber called "Coon Grove," a considerable portion of which is black walnut.  A few years ago the timber in the county was quite heavy, and black walnut trees were found in almost every grove, but the ax of the woodman has been busy depleting the forest groves until very little of the valuable timber is left.

The geological character of 'Winnebago county is composed of the drift deposit of the cretaceous age and the formation known as the Hamilton group of the Devonian system.  Impure limestone of the Hamilton group appears south and east of this county in the beds of Lime creek and Shell Rock river, but its depth increases towards the northwest.  The drift deposit is derived from the rocks of Minnesota and northern Iowa, and rapidly increases in depth from southeast to northwest, as the country rises from the valley of the Shell Rock river, where the drift is shallow, to the elevated plateau along the southern Minnesota line, where it reaches an unknown depth.  It is thought by some geologists, owing to the existence of considerable sand in the soil of this region, that the drift deposit is chiefly the result of the disintegration of the cretaceous formation known as Nishnabotany sandstone.  This is probably true, as in places there are found evidences of sandy shales [sic], and also large sandstone boulders fit for building purposes, adding proof to the above theory.

Extensive beds of peat exist in the county, and it is estimated that these beds occupy an area of at least 2,000 acres.  The character of the peat named is equal to that of Ireland, and has an average depth of about six feet.  It is further estimated that each acre of these beds will furnish 250 tons of dry fuel for each foot of depth.  The beds are mostly situated in the parts of the county least favored with timber, and usually the dry rolling prairie comes up to the very borders of the peat marshes, so that they are in no way prejudicial to the health of the region in which they are situated.  At present, owing to the sparsenesss [sic] of the population, this peat is not utilized, but from the fact of its great distance from the coal fields, and the scarcity of timber, the time is coming when their value will be realized, and the truth demonstrated that nature has abundantly compensated the deficiency of other fuel.


Railroad facilities in Winnebago county have not yet reached the desired standard.  There is but one railway in the county at present, but the citizens are hopeful that before long another road will be laid to Forest City, the county seat.  There have been several projects started, by which it was hoped companies might be induced to lay their lines into the county, but all, with one exception, have proven failures.  The first railroad to attract the attention and raise the hopes of the people, was the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota, in 1870 and 1871.  In the fall of 1870, this company made a survey of their proposed line through the county, crossing the south boundary near Forest City, and continuing in a northwesterly direction towards Blue Earth, Minn.  A contract was entered into by the company and the citizens of the county, in which it was stipulated that the company should receive a five per cent tax on all taxable property of 1871, in the townships of Forest, Center and Iowa; free right of way through the county and a bonus of $10,000—provided, that the road were [sic] completed through the county by the 1st of January, 1873.  Everything at that time seemed to insure the consumation [sic] of the hopes of the people, and every body [sic] was elated over the prospect of getting a railroad.  But for some reason the company did not push their work, and the matter was dropped, although Hon. David Secor and Judge Robert Clark, prominent citizens of Forest City, did all in their power to urge the company to a completion of the road.

The Iowa & Minnesota Railroad was the next proposed line through this county.  The company owning this road, [sic] was organized in Fort Dodge, Webster Co., Iowa, and was headed by John F. Duncombe, a prominent man of that place.  In the fall of 1870, they surveyed their line from Fort Dodge in a northeasterly direction to Clarion, Wright county, thence almost due north through Garner, Hancock county, and on through Forest City, to Wells, Minn.  During the summer of 1873, the grading was completed from Fort Dodge to Forest City along the line of the survey.  Thus it seemed that failure was impossible, and that ere long cars would be running over the road, but again the people were doomed to disappointment.  The financial crash of 1873, so straightened the affairs of the company, that the work went no further, and for lack of capital the road was given up.

On the 27th of April, 1818, the Minnesota & Iowa Southern Railway Company was organized at Forest City, and the following officers were elected:  Hon. David Secor, president; J. Thompson, vice-president; J. W. Mahoney, secretary; William Larson, treasurer; David Secor, M. Peterson, J. Thompson, William Larson, C. D. Smith, S. D. Wadsworth, J. M. Hull, J. W. Mahoney and S. G. Honsey, directors.  These gentlemen worked earnestly in pushing their plans toward completion, and, being a home institution, the citizens of the county naturally took deep interest in the success of the enterprise.  The proposed line was surveyed from the northeast corner of the county, through Lake Mills to Forest City, and a subsidy of 850,000 was voted by the county.  About this time negotiations were opened with the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Company, and that company finally agreed to take the road and complete it, the subsidy and free right of way to be turned over to them.  In 1879 the home company was re-organized with John Marton, of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway Company, as president; David Secor, vice-president and secretary; and Jasper Thompson, treasurer.  The president, treasurer and a majority of the directors of the new organization were officers of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Company, so that virtually the latter had control of the road.  The newly organized company had the management of the road from the Minnesota line to Livermore, Humboldt Co., Iowa.  The road was completed to Forest City, Dec. 3, 1879, and the first passenger train dashed into the village in the afternoon of that day.  A grand ovation was held by the citizens, and every one [sic] felt that the day was one long to be remembered.  The balance of the road was completed early in the following spring, and the Minnesota & Iowa Southern Company controlled the road until January, 1882, when the Minneapolis & St. Louis Company assumed the entire management.  One thing in connection with the development of this enterprise that deserves special mention is the fact, that seven citizens of the county pledged the right of way for the road.  These parties were:  Hon. David Secor, J. W. Mahoney, S. D. Wadsworth, William Larson, S. G. Honsey, C. D. Smith and J. M. Hull.


In May, 1881, the Forest City Southern Railway Company was organized at Forest City, the enterprise being headed by prominent citizens of Forest City and of Garner, Hancock county.  The officers elected were as follows:  President, Hon. David Secor; vice-president, J. M. Elder; secretary, A. H. Chase; treasurer, J. Thompson; superintendent, William Finch; directors, David Secor, W. C. Hayward, W. O. Hanson, B. A. Plummer, J. Thompson, J. W. Mahoney, A. H. Chase, George H. Beadle, C. A. Church and William Finch.  Soon after the organization, the company purchased the grade of the Iowa & Minnesota Railway, of which mention is made in this same connection, to Belmond, Wright county.  The proposed line of road is from Forest City through Garner to Belmond, thence down the valley of the Iowa river to Alden and Iowa Falls, from the latter place to Eldora and south to the junction with the Toledo & Northwestern Railroad about one mile east of Gifford.  In 1882 they built about five miles of road from the junction to Eldora, known generally as the Slippery Elm road, and in 1883 extended it to Alden, a distance in all of about twenty-six miles.  The first station north of the junction is named Secor, in honor of Hon. David Secor, president of the company.

1History of Kossuth, Hancock and Winnebago Counties, Iowa. Springfield, Illinois: Union Publishing Company, 1884. 731-36.

Transcribed by Paul Nagy for Winnebago County IAGenWeb